Roll with it: Tama-chan on the art of making maki zushi

by Daphne Mohajer-Va-Pesaran

Special To The Japan Times

Takayo Kiyota, or Tama-chan as she calls herself, hides secrets inside her maki zushi (sushi rolls) — open them up and you’ll find classical works of art, animals, ninjas, bondage gear, brains, poop and even erotica.

With often hilarious and shocking results, she embeds illustrations into the rice, wraps them in seaweed and presents them as both dishes and artworks. Maki zushi is a ubiquitous food in Japan, and like this chosen material, many of Tama-chan’s motifs reflect everyday life. Linking people to the history and stories of her nation; they are parodies of mundane subjects and vignettes.

One cut of her “salaryman” sushi roll reveals two men, dressed in blue suits, facing each other. Slice it again and you’ll see them bow. Make a final cut and they are introducing themselves and exchanging business cards.

Though they sometimes might not look it, the rolls are edible, made from and colored with familiar ingredients — rice, seaweed, vegetables, pickles, spaghetti and squid ink.

Tama-chan has taken it upon herself to change our perspective of a much-loved dish, reimagining the traditional Japanese food as a raw material for creative expression. The question is: Why?

Japan Times: When did you start using sushi for art?

Tama-chan: I’ve been an illustrator for 20 years, and started working with rice nine years ago. I express myself by drawing images on paper with a pen, and by building unexpected motifs into sushi rolls using materials that are familiar to everyone.

So the rolls are works of art?

Yes. You can eat them, but they are works of art.

But why use sushi rolls to make art?

One day I thought to myself “Why does sushi have to only be used for food?” and it occurred to me that it could be used as a medium of expression. An illustration on paper is considered art, but why does this definition change when it’s made of rice.

I just realized that I wanted to make art with rice, but not necessarily sushi. If chāhan (Chinese fried rice) had been easier to use, then I would have used chāhan!

Did you train for this?

I never attended art school. The sushi making techniques I taught myself.

What was your first sushi-roll creation?

My first try was a teddy bear. Then I made a maiko (trainee geisha). Friends said I couldn’t do it, but I tried it, it worked and it made me really happy!

How do your sushi rolls relate to traditional Japanese culture?

Typically, Japanese cuisine expresses the changing seasons or celebrates holidays and festivals, but I don’t do any of that. I express the world around me in a different way.

Take salarymen for example. They are a great example of everyday Japanese life. They all wear the same suit, they make gestures of passing out business cards and, perhaps in the eyes of a foreigner, they look the same. This phenomenon is perfect for the medium of rice. When I cut a roll, the pieces become symmetrical, so I can show the men facing each other. I cut it once more, and they bow. Cut it again and they are exchanging business cards. It’s a parody of daily life in Japan.

Are there other Japanese foods that you could roll into images?

There is a dish made in Chiba where they roll cute little flower motifs and geometric shapes into sushi rolls. In addition to the fact that they are made of rice, these cute images induce hunger. There are also kintaro ame, which are candies that are made in rolls then cut, like sushi. They make some beautiful motifs, but (the makers) don’t really push the boundaries of the material, or even think to make anything other than standard patterns and forms.

My works, the poop and the brain, for example, are things that you would never expect to come out of food when you cut it. I want to stay away from obvious images.

How do you find inspiration for your motifs?

I originally wanted to be a children’s book author, because I wanted to link drawings and stories. I make anything I like because there will always be someone who will appreciate it. Lets take trains for example, if I make a Sobu line train, someone may see it and say, “Thats my train line!” It gives it a deeper meaning. They feel closer to the work. This kind of “mundane” art can reach the most people.

How do you feel when you’re actually cutting a roll?

My mind goes blank. Whenever I make something new I wonder how it will turn out, but I like the challenge. Drawings are 2-D, sushi is 3-D, then cut to 2-D. When drawing, you consider the thickness of the lines, but with this work you have to consider the volume in 3-D. In sculpture, you also think in 3-D, but you don’t have to add the space around the figure or the background. With my sculptural sushi drawings, I need to also pack in the “empty” space around the figure.

My work looks detailed and well-planned, but I like that they can’t be completely planned out, and things change while they are being made. This is not a drawing created from above onto a sheet of paper, I build the work. You may think that you have executed it perfectly, but then when you cut it, it has changed. The hands are fat, or the eyes are far apart. There is a limit to the amount of control I can have over the final image, because the image is in the piece. I wonder if there are any other artistic mediums that behave similarly.

What are your thoughts on rice itself, the main ingredient of your work?

We are being used by the rice. In the same way that birds are being used by trees and plants to spread their seeds; while rice may sustain us, it is also using us to live.

The rice? Is this your own theory?

Yes, rice is born, eaten and dies in a shorter span than us, but not if you consider the length of a human life relative to the length of the history of the Earth.

The reason that humans won’t disappear is that we are linked to one another genetically. Rice is linked in the same way, but it uses us to survive, and will never disappear as long as we are alive and eat it. Rice is linked to our genetic memory, as people feel connected to their local food naturally. In Japan, rice is everywhere and we will most likely never stop eating it.

What is your dream for the future of sushi-roll art?

I want to make people happy! Since no one has done this before, I want to share with people the possibilities of using rice as a form of expression and let them experiment with it as more than a form of cooking. My book is an art book, not a recipe book. People want to see things that are original and that they have never seen before. Then other people see it and also share my joy.

Tama-chan’s new book “Smiling Sushi Roll” is available from Little More Books: bit.ly/littlemore .
To find out more about her sushi-roll creations visit smilingsushiroll.com or http://ameblo.jp/kururinzushi (Japanese).
Click to see Kiyota presenting at a recent PechaKucha event at Roppongi Art Night.


Take a sushi-rolling art class — it’s a scream

“What kind of weirdos come to this workshop?” was Tama-chan’s first giggle-inducing question to the crowd.

“Don’t worry about it being perfect,” she continued. “The rice is hard to control, and even if you follow the instructions perfectly, yours will be different from the person sitting next to you.

“I don’t really want you to change your way of thinking by learning how to do it properly, or remembering the rules; just remember that someone named Tama-chan told you sort of how to make this thing.”

Timed with the recent release of her book “Smiling Sushi Roll” Tama-chan was holding a workshop to share her unusual passion. A gaggle of well-dressed ladies had shuffled into the Timeout Tokyo Cafe to learn how to make art in sushi rolls.

Donning their own aprons, they took seats in front of prepared sets of materials: three bulbous forms of oddly-colored rice and some other, more mysterious ingredients. These women, only half of whom had ever tried rolling sushi before were ready to join the ranks of more than 300 people who have learned the art from from Tama-chan at her workshops.

We started from the inside out, with a little tube of rice wrapped in a strip of nori seaweed. Then we created another layer, on which we laid two long pickles and two strands of squid-ink spaghetti, before rolling the bed of grains around the first tube. Each piece was constructed separately using sticky sushi rice (so it won’t dry too quickly), and it was hard not to snack on the delicious yukari gohan (rice with shiso) belonging to the next layer.

After no less than two hours of carefully placing grains of rice and fiddling with strips of seaweed, we sliced our completed maki zushi rolls to reveal, with squeals of laughter, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.

Still laughing, we proceeded to the finale: Photo ops of our best slices displayed on sheets of paper with exclamation bubbles for our own messages.